BEN CLASSON/Herald photo

The University of Wisconsin received more than $6.6 million last week from the federal government in an effort to jumpstart alternative fuel research.

The grant comes in addition to the $125 million awarded earlier this year to fund the UW-Madison Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center. UW researchers partnered with Michigan State University to win the award.

The original $125 million award is to be doled out over the next five years, so the extra money to get started is appreciated by researchers, College of Agricultural and Life Sciences spokesman Michael Penn said. He added the sooner the researchers get started, the more strides they can make in the alternative energy field.

"Money is in the bank right now, so we can start doing research and experiments," Penn said. "We can start doing what we need to do to get it done right now."

Director of the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center and UW bacteriology professor Tim Donohue agrees.

"The early funding is a good thing because we can start spending money sooner," Donohue said.

Of the total $125 million, UW will get about $70 million, according to UW spokesperson Terry Devitt.

"Even though the University of Wisconsin is the lead entity in the partnership with Michigan State, they helped prepare the proposal, and the funding will be shared," Devitt said.

Two other bioenergy research institutions received similar awards, though the UW and MSU partnership was the only university-based research to win a grant. The other two recipients were Lawrence Berkley National Laboratory and Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

Donohue estimates 12-20 proposals were presented to DOE, though the exact number has not been released.

Devitt said in order to win the grant, institutions had to prepare a sound proposal and research plan. The UW research center's proposal focused on breaking down cellulose and converting it into energy.

According to Penn, cellulose is one of the most common organic materials on earth; cellulose is present in trees, parts of corn and waste products. It is a non-edible long chain of molecules made up of carbon and hydrogen.

The trick, Penn said, is to find ways to more easily break down cellulose. Presently, getting to and breaking down the material is very expensive and inefficient.

"The centers are trying to find ways of making these products easier and faster — if they do, the energy market will be diversified," Penn said. "It could have a good effect on gasoline prices, the local economy and the environment."

Donohue said he is excited about the effect the research center will have on the student body, and he added this award makes UW and its partners the best places to receive state-of-the-art training in the growing field of bioenergy.

"There will be lots of research and internship opportunities through the center," Donohue said. "We are solving today's problems and training the biofuel leaders of tomorrow."